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NHRA Top Fuel champ finding speed at LVMS; final round set — PHOTOS

Doug Kalitta got hot at the right time last year, winning three of the final six races to claim the NHRA Top Fuel championship after being a runner-up six times previously.

Kalitta’s efforts to defend his title have gotten off to a rocky start this year, as he’s yet to advance to the semifinals of the first three events this season.

But in the second race with a new car, Kalitta appears to be starting to find his groove entering the final round of the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

After being the fastest on the first day of qualifying Friday, Kalitta went faster during Saturday’s qualifying session, posting a time of 3.738 seconds at 336.82 mph on his first qualifying run. He’ll be the No. 1 qualifier entering Sunday’s elimination rounds.

“That (run) was plenty strong for the conditions, so I’m feeling real confident with what we got going on,” Kalitta said. “I think on the last run we were maybe just pushing it a little a little much, just to see what we could do. But the track seems plenty good in all the lanes, and that should be a good day for tomorrow.”

Funny Car’s Austin Prock (3.904 seconds at 321.42 mph) and Pro Stock’s Jerry Tucker (6.612, 206.61) join Kalitta as the fastest in their respective classes entering Sunday.

The run is Kalitta’s first No. 1 qualifying position of the season.

“There’s a lot to be said for getting a win in early. It just takes a lot of pressure off,” Kalitta said. “We’re all trying to win these things, and to get (a win) behind you, everybody kind of settles in a little bit more.”

With 15 Top Fuel cars in Las Vegas, Kalitta’s qualifying group on Sunday will have three cars. Tony Schumacher qualified second (3.768, 325.53).

Points leader Shawn Langdon, who drives for Kalitta, and Justin Ashley, second in the point standings, will be alongside Kalitta in the opening Top Fuel qualifying group Sunday. The two fastest drivers in each group advance to the next round.

“So much for the advantage of being the No. 1 qualifier,” Kalitta said. “I’m up for those guys. My guys, they’ll take a look at that ladder and realize that we have to get down the track and be on our A-game. It should be fun.”

Prock is in his first season in Funny Car. He previously drove in Top Fuel with John Force Racing but made the switch to fill a spot on the team’s Funny Car side when Robert Hight III announced before the season he was stepping away due to health reasons.

“This team’s had a lot of success here in the past, and they’re showing it again,” Prock said. “I just got to keep being a sponge, keep learning and keep doing the best I can, and I know this team’s going to give me an awesome hot rod.”

Prock picked up his first Funny Car win in Arizona last week and entered the weekend second in the point standings, two points behind J.R. Todd. On Saturday, he saved his best qualifying run of the weekend for the end to take the top spot. Prock’s car owner John Force qualified second (3.908, 326.79).

“It gives you a lot of confidence running into Sunday morning running like we are,” Prock said. “I’m chomping at the bit to get into the first round tomorrow, and hopefully we can go three more (rounds).”

Tucker, in his second year in Pro Stock, claimed his first career No. 1 qualifying position on his first of two runs Saturday.

“It’s pretty difficult to get these things down the track, and I’m just really barely past being a rookie,” Tucker said. “And then added pressure, I got (six-time Pro Stock champion Erica Ender’s) car from last year, so it’s used to winning.”

Tucker unseated teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr., who qualified second at 6.625 seconds (206.64 mph), for the top spot. Tucker said now he’s starting to feel more comfortable driving in Pro Stock.

“If they can just get it down the track the very first time, it just takes a lot of pressure off,” he said. “I halfway did my job right, so it just makes the whole weekend a little bit better.”

Contact Alex Wright at awright@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlexWright1028 on X.

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